July 23 – 29: “How do you choose your character’s names?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5With ThrillerFest firmly in our rearview mirror and our writing bucket full of inspiration, we turn to ITW Members Alan Jacobson, Patrick Oster, Jay Brandon, Robert J. Stava, Paul D. Brazill, Kim Alexander, Sarah Simpson, William Boyle, David Orange and Lisa Black as they discuss how they choose their character’s names. Scroll down to the “comments” section to see what they have to say!


Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of a dozen books featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops group. His 20+ years of research and training with the FBI, DEA, ATF, SWAT, Scotland Yard, and the US military infuse his books with verisimilitude. His novels have been optioned by Hollywood and both series have been raved about by federal agents, police captains, FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.


A veteran of the NYC advertising business, Robert J. Stava is a horror & science fiction writer living in the Hudson Valley, apparently not far from the village where many of his stories are set: Wyvern Falls. His last novel, Nightmare From World’s End, was published by Severed Press in 2016 and his next science fiction-horror novel, Neptune’s Reckoning, set in Montauk, is due out the end of 2018. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies over the last several years and he has also authored one YA novella, The Devil’s Engine, published by Muzzleland Press. He’s also a musician, artist and historian. His non-fiction book Combat Recon was published in hardcover by Schiffer Publishing in 2008, encompassing the history and photography of his great uncle John Stava, a combat photographer with the 5th Air Force in the SW Pacific during WWII.


Always a deep thinking child, Sarah Simpson supposed that one day – she’d become a writer. So many hours consumed by reading, lost in the fantasy worlds of Enid Blyton. Always a people watcher, wondering what is ensuing behind the eyes. But as is often the case, life gripped her hand, and led her along a different path. She graduated first with a business degree and then with a psychology degree. After completing post-graduate studies, Sarah worked as a therapist within the varied field of mental health. This path has gifted her an invaluable understanding of life and of people. Now a writer; she could never have been without these experiences. She wanted to write about life and as with her debut novel, HER GREATEST MISTAKE – perhaps travel the darker aspects of life and relationships.


Paul D. Brazill’s books include Last Year’s Man, Guns of Brixton, Small Time Crimes, and Kill Me Quick. He was born in England and lives in Poland. His writing has been translated into Italian, Polish, German and Slovene. He has been published in four editions of The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. He has also edited a few anthologies, including the best-selling True Brit Grit.


William Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY. His newest novel, THE LONELY WITNESS, is out now from Pegasus Crime. His first novel, GRAVESEND, will be reissued by Pegasus Crime in September 2018. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.



Patrick Oster, now writing fiction full time, was a managing editor at Bloomberg News and editor-in-chief of the National Law Journal. He has worked as a journalist for Business Week in Europe, Knight Ridder in Mexico and covered the White House, State Department, the Supreme Court and the CIA as Washington Bureau Chief of The Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of the nonfiction book The Mexicans, a Book-of-the-Month selection. His award-winning comic thriller The Commuter was published by the Argo Navis imprint of Perseus Books. He also wrote the spy thriller The German Club and the cyber-thriller The Hacker Chronicles. His latest novel is The Amazon Detective Agency, a murder mystery. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers.


Jay Brandon is the author of 18 novels. His previous novel, Shadow Knight’s Mate, has been called “an absorbing, exciting, and absolutely entertaining novel.” His earlier novels include Fade the Heat, which was an Edgar finalist and published by more than a dozen foreign publishers. He has a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University.



Kim Alexander grew up in the wilds of Long Island, NY and slowly drifted south until she reached Key West. After spending ten rum-soaked years as a DJ in the Keys, she moved to Washington DC, where she lives with two cats, an angry fish, and her extremely patient husband who tells her she needs to write at least ten more books if she intends to retire in Thailand, so thank you for your patronage.


David Orange, veteran actor, has co-starred twice on Broadway and has had several memorable film roles including the “Sleepy Klingon” in the hit film Star Trek VI in addition to performing in 300 television commercials and guest roles on TV shows. He also has had 25 articles published in wine and entertainment magazines and two novellas published by small presses.


Lisa Black has spent over twenty years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police department. Her books have been translated into six languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s list and one has been optioned for film. The first two, written as Elizabeth Becka, were followed by seven Theresa MacLean forensic thrillers. Her current Gardiner & Renner series includes That Darkness, Unpunished, Perish, and, in August 2018, Suffer the Children.


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  1. I have always been obsessed by names, ever since I wanted to change my name to Rosie after a pretty saloon girl in one of my favorite Wild, Wild West episodes. (When I saw this episode as an adult I realized that Rosie was a hooker, but at ten that went right over my naïve head….) I bought a copy of Name Your Baby in high school, which, come to think of it, might have caused my parents some consternation. When I needed to choose a pen name I went through both family trees and tried anagrams (without much success). So when I name a character, that name is important to me. It has to be right.
    I find them in one of two ways: 1) They pop into my head immediately and are perfect. No further work is necessary. 2) They don’t pop into my head immediately, or I give them a name that already belongs to a family member or a famous person and I know I’ll have to pull out old Search and Replace before sending the final version to my agent. More work is needed.
    For first names, I think about what I’m try to convey. Insouciance? Maxie. A dour mood? Harold. Charming but roguish? Brendan. If that doesn’t work, I figure out what year the person should have been born in and go to http://www.ssa.gov where the Social Security Administration keeps a list of the top baby names of each year.
    For last names, I like to use different ethnicities, especially in Cleveland which had a huge influx from eastern Europe in the early 1900s. Or, I glance over at the staff list pinned above my desk at work. Many Cape Coral police officers would be surprised at how often their surnames crop up in my books.

  2. When I set out to write a story, I often think of the many people I’ve known throughout life that have had memorable names, and try to use them. However, I take into consideration where the character is from and the era the story takes place.
    I invariably ask a friend or editor when reading my work to make note of the names that appeal to them. Not every name has to be wildly different, but a couple sprinkled here and there quite often add a nice seasoning to the mix.
    I also use as a name generator my experience as a thirty-year career actor and the numerous characters that I’ve portrayed, or have seen others play. Most important is that the name comes with the face and the personality to bring the character to life. It’s the finishing touch.

  3. Sometimes a name serves a very specific purpose in fiction. In my new novel, AGAINST THE LAW, the protagonist is named for a particular reason. He is a disbarred Houston lawyer who has to go back into the courts, a world from which he’s literally been barred for three years, to defend his sister who’s accused of murder. His name has a function. Edward Hall. First of all, it sounds staunch. He was the scion of a well-known Houston family. (His father’s first name is Marshall; working class people do not generally name their sons Marshall.) But here’s the reason for “Edward”: I have an old friend named Robert who’s a Houston lawyer. Robert has never gone by anything other than that. Sometimes when I mention him to, say, another lawyer from Houston, that lawyer will say, “Oh yeah, I know Rob.” Or Bob. And I’ll think, No, you don’t.
    So I wanted a name like that for Edward, a formal name which everyone who knows him well uses. The reader can quickly spot who really knows him and who’s only pretending.
    With one exception. From his beloved little sister he’ll accept being called Eddie, because they grew up together. But only her. And only she can draw him back into the courtroom. It’s a tiny clue for the intimacy they share.

    – Jay Brandon

  4. This is something I have focused on my entire career. I remember reading books early on where the character names were so close to one another that I got mixed up who was who. As a result, in my own early novels and outlines, I started keeping a list, a cast of characters, to make sure that their last names did not begin with the same letter that another character’s did. However, as I got deeper into both of my series, and mixed and matched characters, it became a more difficult task, as I had characters from different series whose last names began with the same letter. I still spend a lot of time trying to ensure that there are no “collisions” among character names, but with my thirteenth novel (currently in the edit phase) it’s gotten to be a more tangled task.

    As to specific character names, the name has to work for me. By that I mean it has to match the character’s personality. This is good form anyway (unless you purposely want a contrast (for example, you make Jack Bolt a wimp—not what one would expect with a name like that); for my aggressive characters, I generally go for Rs, Ts, Ds, and so on—so the name automatically conjures “hardness.”

    In DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (the fourth covert ops book in the OPSIG Team Black series), the US military general in charge of the Moon shot that my special forces operatives must carry out is named Klaus Eisenbach. A launch and Moon landing is an exacting and monumental task—attention to detail is critical—so I chose a German name, utilizing the positive character trait often associated with Germans…BMW engages in the “relentless pursuit of perfection” and uses “German engineering” to build “the ultimate driving machine.” General Eisenbach must embody such traits to carry out a successful, and risky, mission. (But be careful: when using ethnic names, be cautious with stereotypes. It can be a fine line…just don’t cross it.)

    In FALSE ACCUSATIONS, my debut novel from twenty years ago, I named the antagonist Brittany Harding. She was, indeed, a manipulative, unfeeling person who did some very bad things to people…but she was also very attractive and alluring, so I gave her a name that rolls off the tongue and conjures beauty. The name itself provided the contrast that the character embodied.

    Does this matter to the reader? Perhaps to some, but definitely not to all. However, it matters to me, and I’m the one creating, filling those blank pages with words, sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately pages. If the name isn’t working for me, the character doesn’t, either.

  5. As with most authors I expect, my characters’ names are very important to me. Having said that, I don’t seem to spend huge amounts of time coming up with them because I kind of always know what they need to be. Based on the role each character will have in the story, from the outset, I will have an image of them, which in turn will throw up names. I think we all have images, features and characteristics associated with names, based on our past and current acquaintances, films we may have watched, and so on.
    With my debut novel Her Greatest Mistake, this is set in Cornwall, UK and so other than my two main protagonists, Eve and Gregg, I chose names native to this region, such as Ruan and Bea. With the much younger characters in Her Greatest Mistake, it was more personal knowledge with these being around the same age as my son – I considered the names not only local to Cornwall but those that were also popular within this age group, obviously names do follow fashions.
    With my main protagonists, I first consider the traits I want them to show, then those that are regional and age relevant and then picture the image I have of them with the chosen name. In Her Greatest Mistake, Eve is my main female protagonist, I wanted a name that sounded strong, no fuss but also feminine and its meaning of new beginnings was also highly relevant. I have to add, for the characters I write, knowing I would not like them if I ever met them, I can’t help but to also give them names I’m also not so keen on for whatever reason. I think this is probably natural. I will add, in my second novel, I decided in the first round of edits to change the name of one of my characters, albeit reluctantly, as I loved the name and fit to the character but it was just too close to another character in the story.
    I do believe naming characters is such a personal thing, marrying up characteristics with past and present associations, a little research and much visualisation, for me.

  6. What is it they say about keeping your friends close? I’ve used my friends’ names for my characters many, many times – usually taking a few visual and verbal tics along for the ride. This makes it much easier for me to visualise characters and have a bit of fun with how normal people would react in extreme situations. I’ve even had to kill off a few good friends and choosing the most gruesome exit method for them has been highly entertaining – for me at least!

  7. Names can be destiny in life and fiction, which is why novelists take time to pick the right name for major and minor characters. Hero or villain, you want to get it right or readers may tune out.
    Consider this real life example: If President Trump’s German ancestors had left their surname as Drumpf, would he have been able to persuade clients to put his last name on glitzy buildings as a valuable brand?And would he have become President Donald Drumpf? Maybe not.
    In fiction, picking a name for main characters is key, whether you need a Bible thumbing sea captain named Ahab or a supervillain with a family secret called Darth Vader (whose name in German, by the way, means Dark Father, a nice little hint about Luke Skywalker’s parentage from the scriptwriter for those who speak that language.)
    In my first novel, “The Commuter,” a comic thriller, my main character is a nebbishy innocent, who doesn’t always realize that all the trees around him mean that he’s stumbled into a forest. I picked a first name of Barnaby, which reminded me a bit of Bartleby the Scrivener, the Herman Melville character who just wants to be left alone.
    In my spy thriller “The German Club,” I have twin brothers who didn’t know they were separated as infants by their parents. To the sharp-eyed reader, they have similar surnames names — at least in translation. The mother of one hides from her Nazi husband by using the surname Ritter, which means knight. The other uses his original name of Springer, which means the knight in a chess game. It was a bit like a Darth Vader clue. And the Ritter brother winds up on a knight-like quest to solve a murder.
    I also use nicknames for people given a less than desirable first name such as Aloysius or Hortense. Using a nickname can be a sign they won’t be pigeonholed by a name they didn’t chose or like.
    In my cyberthriller “The Hacker Chronicles” the hero was christened Aloyisis, the same as his grandfather, who already had Al as a nickname, so he winds up being Vic, which comes from the Latin origin of his real name, Ludovicus. In Latin Vic’s name means warrior, which is what he becomes as a break-the-law hacker detective who solves a murder mystery while fighting Russian and Chinese cybercrooks.
    Hortense, a supporting character in “The Commuter,” is a Internet and cyber whiz. She changes her name to Tesla, after the famed inventor of A.C. electricity, Nikola Tesla. Better that than coming up with “Hor” as her nickname, she explains at one point in the story.
    In my latest novel “The Amazon Detective Agency,” the female detective who is the lead character is named Melissa and has an Irish last name, McGinty, which fits with a lot of her preferences in life in music and drink. Melissa sounds soft and feminine, which is not what this tough-as-nails shamus is. I had everyone call this former military cop “Mel,” which reflects some of the no-nonsense male qualities she picked up from her detective dad, who raised her as a single parent.
    Whatever name you pick for an important character, try to make it distinctive so readers can keep track of who is saying what. That probably means picking a good last name, because usually it’s the last name that’s used in dialogue to identify who said what.
    You can choose to use first names, as I did with Barnaby to make a character a little more likable. A tip: if you choose to do your book in first person, the name you choose will mostly appear in dialogue as people address the character. So make it one that sticks in the reader’s mind.
    A final thought: If you write a book set far back in the past, consider what names were in use then, like Mable or Agnes in the 1930s. If you saddle a modern character with a name pegged to a bygone era, you should realize that you are saddling the character with an unfashionable ID. Lamont Cranston worked for the real identity of The Shadow decades ago. But competing with a character named Thor in the 21st Century isn’t likely to make him a candidate to join the Avengers.

    — Patrick Oster

  8. Naming characters is one of my favorite things to do. My grandfather—he wasn’t a writer or even a big reader beyond the Daily News—gave nicknames to everyone he knew. There was such joy for me in witnessing that. I grew up in the Bensonhurst and Gravesend sections of Brooklyn, and I was fascinated by not only mob history but by the names of mobsters (Gaspipe Casso was the previous tenant of the apartment I spent my first eight or nine years in), so that shaped my early fondness for the act of naming. I also loved reading box scores just for the names. I had spiral notebooks full of names I wanted to use in stories.

    In my first novel, GRAVESEND, I used many names of my grade school classmates. Though my father was born in Scotland, I was raised with my Italian mother and Italian grandparents and fell in love with the musical Italian names of my friends and neighbors. None of the characters in GRAVESEND are based on actual people, but I used names that struck me as the most memorable. One of the main characters is Conway D’Innocenzio—I got “D’Innocenzio” from an obituary in the Daily News. Some people think I chose it for its symbolic value, but I just really loved the sound. “Conway” is a strange choice for an Italian kid from Brooklyn—I had a sense that his folks were inexplicably big Conway Twitty fans. I have another character in that book called Ray Boy Calabrese. I knew several guys growing up who had “Boy” added after their first name: Larry Boy; Jimmy Boy; Richie Boy. There’s something about it—even as the boy grows into a man, he still goes by a kid’s nickname. I love that.

    In my most recent novel, THE LONELY WITNESS, the main character Amy Falconetti is named after the actress Renee Maria Falconetti from Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Amy also appeared briefly in GRAVESEND). Many of my other favorite character names from the book—Mrs. Epifanio, Mr. Pezzolanti, Mr. Castricone, Mrs. Mescolotto—I discovered via the “current services” section on the website of my neighborhood funeral parlor. That’s probably the place I draw from the most these days when I’m writing about home. My imagination also lights up when I visit my grandfather at the cemetery—there’s nothing like seeing names on headstones to start building a character, a life. In that way, death can lead to many new (fictional) lives.

  9. Going back to William Boyle’s post and nicknames, I’ve also used friends’ nicknames such as Sleepy Pete, John The Con, Brynn Laden, Patsy The Pasty-Faced Barmaid etc. And, of course, there is Tuc:’I couldn’t resist it, even though messing with Tuc’s mind was like shooting fish in a barrel. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box, after all. He’d received his nickname after the time he’d tattooed a dotted line and the word ‘cut’ around his neck while looking in a mirror.’

    1. In The Hacker Chronicles, I named an appealing, bribe-taking doorman after a neighbor who is a Polish painter (paintings not houses). He was amused. Another neighbor who writes murder mysteries modeled a baker friend as her main character in a series of novels as a Dexter-likie serial killer who is a baker in a village pretty much like ours. Not as amused as my painter pal. It can be fun, but think about it.

  10. I often choose names thematically if randomly, though I have been guilty of stealing realnames of friends (or their characters). Themes can be random: London streets for one novel, Ned Sparks characters for another — beers, I think for something. I also forget once I’ve picked the names…

      1. Steal from your betters every chance you get AKA the Shakespeare method 🤣

  11. Names are hard! I guess everyone already knows that. I’ve found I can’t really know a character and climb into their skin until I have their name right.
    When I began writing my epic fantasy series, my friends had one request: Names they could easily pronounce! I agreed: No random com’mas, no ungainly gathering of consonants, and you had to be able to say it in your head. I was writing about a human society and a non-human world, so I had two sets of challenges. The humans names were easy-ish. I wanted them to be fairly short and sounds as if the society had one root language, but just different enough that you knew you weren’t reading about a contemporary city in our world. I ended up with names like Lelet (instead of Lilly) and Scilla (instead of Sally.)
    My inhuman world had was different. WAY different. Eriis is a desert kingdom, and I wanted the sigh and hiss of wind over sand to be reflected in their language.(I am not Tolkien, I did not write an entire new vocabulary, but I did create a lot of words–mostly swear words!) The names of these alien folk all have double letters–mostly vowels. My hero is named Rhuun, his best friend is Ilaan, and so on.
    While naming characters, it’s worth remembering nicknames and pet names. Most of my main characters will answer to at least two names. I have a nasty ‘bad boyfriend’ who specifically calls the woman he’s involved with the wrong name as both a form of erasure and control. Lelet can’t go by her own name while visiting Eriis because her name sounds too much like the villain of an old Eriisai folk story. (Like you wouldn’t name your kid Cruella, for instance. Or maybe you would–I don’t know your life!)
    So names have to come from the bones of the world you’re writing about. How do you come up with your character’s names? We’ll be here talking about it all week!

  12. Names are powerful things, even if the reader isn’t aware of it. I tend to put a careful amount of thought into this, with a lot depending on who the character is and where they fit into the story. For key characters, I like to have them slightly unusual but not overly complicated. Constantine Francois Ratanatharathorn is probably going to turn your tale into a clunker. If there’s an ethnicity involved – which is often – I always research and choose a name who’s origin reflects their personality, or perhaps a hidden clue as to their role in the story. For example, in the novella “Lorenzo King and the Dunderberg Imp” (from “The Feast of Saint Anne) one of the supporting characters name is ‘Hideki Hasegawa’, which translates as “Excellence in the long river”, a hint as to why you should watch him carefully in the story even though the main character consistently dismisses him as a useless halfwit. In “Nightmare From World’s End” for the main character Sarah Ramhorne – a descendant of local Lenape Indians – her last name is taken from a Sachem (chief) who signed a treaty here in the Hudson Valley in the 1700s and fought alongside Washington’s Army at White Plains. “Grant Taylan” in my latest novel “Lost World of Kharamu” is an homage to a very real adventurer I know who has spent a great deal of time and energy tracking down lost WWII crews and aircraft in the jungles of the Southwest Pacific and yet my main protagonist in many of the stories, John Easton, simply popped into my head out of nowhere. For many characters in my Wyvern Falls series I draw on local Hudson Valley family surnames to help the stories resonate with the area they’re set in.

    Lastly, I always do a check to make sure whatever names I am using aren’t already used or over-used. There’s no quicker way to deep-six your story than to skip on your homework and throw a name on your character pre-laden with assumptions, like calling your secret agent Jerry Seinfeld.

    Unless, of course, that’s your specific intention.

  13. I once named a character Rachel then decided to change it to something I’ve forgotten, but she didn’t like it at all. It was weird. I had to change it back so she was happy.

    One heroine is called Primrose Pretty. The name popped into my head and I just had to write a story for her. She hated her name with a passion and was teased at school but is resigned to it as an adult, especially when her love interest calls her Rose and says it’s elegant and beautiful.

  14. I do tend to overuse names–Jack, Josh, Alex, Jenna, Brandon/Brendan, especially. Don’t ask me why–if there’s some deep-seated psychological explanation I may not want to know what it is.

    1. I used Tesla for the same type of character in two different novels — with a hint that it is the same person but just a little older. I may bring her back again in another book I have in mind. She’s a cyber whiz who once worked for the NSA but took off Snowdon style.

  15. Agreeing with Lisa and Paul, yes, for some reason “Alan” is one of my fall-back positions for a man’s name, but it almost never makes the final cut. One that does is Jack, which was the name of among others the protagonist of my novel SHADOW KNIGHT’S MATE. Jack is just a good solid nickname that makes the guy sound competent. Also, he lives a shadowy life and Jack is forgettable, as Jack wants to be.

  16. I am a member and have been asked to join the latest panel on “how do you select the names of characters” in a novel?

    I want to update my biography, but can’t navigate to that area that allows me to do so.
    Can someone direct me?

    David Orange

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